A secure electoral system is a vital component of a healthy democracy, and the public must have confidence that our elections are secure and fit for the 21st century. Asking voters to bring identification to their polling station is an important way of achieving this and the Elections Bill will put such a requirement into law. This is part of a wider package of proposals in the Elections Bill to strengthen electoral integrity – including measures to tackle postal and proxy voting fraud, tackling intimidation, increasing transparency of digital campaigning, and preventing foreign interference in elections.
Identification to vote has been backed by the Electoral Commission and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which state that its absence is a security risk. At present, it is harder to take out a library book or collect a parcel at a post office than it is to vote in someone else’s name.
In Northern Ireland voters have been required to produce personal identification before voting in polling stations since 1985, with photographic identification being required since 2003 when introduced by the last Labour Government. Ministers at the time noted that “the Government have no intention of taking away people’s democratic right to vote. If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not be introducing it at this time.”
The Electoral Commission has also commented that “since the introduction of photo ID in Northern Ireland there have been no reported cases of personation. Voters’ confidence that elections are well-run in Northern Ireland is consistently higher than in Great Britain, and there are virtually no allegations of electoral fraud at polling stations.”
Under the Government’s proposals, anyone without a form of identification will be able to apply for a new free one – meaning that no voter will be disenfranchised.
However, I do appreciate the concerns raised about identification at polling stations but introducing identification to vote was a Conservative Party manifesto commitment in 2019. The Organisation for the Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Electoral Commission have both expressed concern about the current system and recommended the use of ID in polling stations.
A report published by Sir Eric, now Lord Pickles, in 2016 recommended the introduction of providing identification before voting. The report acknowledged that the number of allegations was low and cases of prosecution were rare. It also explained, however, that the significant vulnerability highlighted by expert organisations and the fact that 80 per cent of the registered electorate vote at polling stations gave rise to a risk that needed to be addressed.
The Association of Electoral Administrators, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the National Police Chiefs’ Council have all expressed support for an identification requirement. Further details on the operation of the proposals will be released in due course.
It is also important to note that recent data shows that 99 per cent of people from ethnic minority background had a form of identification that would be accepted under the proposals, as did 98 per cent of people who identify as white. A total of 99 per cent of 18-29 year olds hold the relevant identification and 98 per cent of those aged 70 and over do too.
Finally, I can assure you that the Government is working to ensure that all eligible voters continue to be able to vote. Work is ongoing with charities and civil society organisations to communicate changes and improve the proposals where necessary. The legislation will make clear that local authorities will be required to provide an identity card to anyone who needs it. A Cabinet Office evaluation of the identification pilot scheme in 2019 also found that locally issued identification had a positive benefit for homeless electors who were able to use it to access other local public services including a local job centre.